Tag Archives: Public Relations

Fake news, questionable ethics and bad publicity

The American propagandist and “father of spin” Edward Bernays famously argued that the propaganda efforts which had been so important to the success of the U.S. wartime effort could be equally applied during times of peace and stable government.

If you follow me on Twitter or stay plugged into the day’s online news feeds, you may already be familiar with the case of Citizenship & Immigration Canada’s fake oath-taking event. If not, CIC staffers, under pressure from the Minister’s office and in cahoots with producers at the Conservative-friendly Sun TV News, orchestrated a make-believe citizenship ceremony for “new Canadians”. The problem is that the majority of the so-called new citizens who attended the event to take their oaths were actually government bureaucrats.

There are two immediately striking observations to be made here: the first is to question the effort and expense paid by a government department (on the taxpayer’s dime, no less) to organize a media event that was more focused on the production of an image–no matter the substance–than the celebration of real citizenship. That they would do so for a news network that draws very meagre ratings makes it all the more puzzling.

More importantly, how in the world could the CIC’s senior communications staff (and SunTV producers, for that matter) not have known that this would blow back, making them look either stupid or manipulative? The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), which oversees emergency response in the United States, did almost the exact same thing several years ago during the California wild fires and got called out for its efforts in the national media. Either the CIC’s communication strategists didn’t know about the FEMA case or they chose to ignore it. Beyond the unethical nature of the behaviour, neither ignorance or bliss is an acceptable defense when you’re paid to act like a professional.

The Conservative government already has a reputation for relentless information management. Events like the fake oath-swearing ceremony irritate and agitate the national media, with whom the Tories already have strained relations, not to mention the Twitterati who kept the event trending for most of today. More importantly, events like this one reinforce in the minds of citizens–especially non-supporters–that this is a government for whom spin control has become the norm in communicative practice. While it’s unlikely to have any kind of long-term effects on its own, this event now joins others (and here) in the growing case file of Tory propaganda.

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Ottawa Public Health, Risk Communication & the Endoscopy Infection Scare

In a hastily organized media conference on Saturday, October 15, 2011, the City of Ottawa’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Isra Levy, announced that a local, privately owned “non-hospital” medical clinic failed to follow proper infection control measures, resulting in the potential exposure of 6,800 patients to Hepatitis and HIV.

According to Dr. Levy, there was no evidence that a single patient had been infected as a result of treatment, and following consultation with infectious disease specialists he confirmed that the estimated rate of possible infection was “very low”:

  • 1 in 1 million for Hepatitis B
  • 1 in 50 million for Hepatitis C
  • 1 in 3 billion for HIV

On his Twitter feed Dan Gardner, author of the critically acclaimed book, Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, described the risks cited in this case as “indescribably tiny…dwarfed by the risk of driving to the corner store.”

Despite the exceedingly low possibility of infection, the announcement by Ottawa’s health authority predictably generated outrage and intense public and media scrutiny.

Situation summary

Ottawa Public Health (OPH) first became aware of this clinic’s problems in July 2011, when the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care advised that an inspection by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario discovered infection prevention and sanitation protocols had not always been followed. It was then that OPH began its own investigation to assess the risk to public health and identify all patients who might be affected.

This involved a lengthy process of tracing several thousand patient records over a 10-year period. This volume of patient records, combined with restrictions on patient confidentiality set by Ontario privacy laws, made the task of informing those affected extremely difficult.

The final list of patients who may have been exposed to infection was not confirmed until Thursday, October 13th. On Friday, October 14th, OPH put its risk communication plan into effect. The first step involved finalizing the preparation of registered letters that would be immediately sent to all 6,800 patients. This included coordinating with the physician at the centre of the health scare, a professional obligation involving medical errors. Second, it involved notifying local physicians to ensure they would be able to address public demand for information and requests for blood testing. And it involved training as many as 50 public health nurses who would be redeployed from other units (e.g., sex education, home visits with new parents, etc.) to staff a call response hotline.

This plan was developed over the course of the health department’s three-month investigation. Given the possibility of an information leak, only a select number of key individuals were involved in the investigation and planning process.

A threatened media leak

Ottawa Public Health originally intended to hold its media conference on Tuesday, October 18th, at which time all information about the findings would have been disclosed. By this point, all affected patients would have been informed directly about what had occurred, physicians would have been prepared to respond to demands for information and testing, and the call response unit would have been up and running.

On the morning of Saturday, October 15th, Dr. Levy’s office was informed that a national news organization had become aware of the investigation and was preparing to break the story on the basis of inaccurate information.

This placed the public health authority in a difficult situation: the risk that a news report containing misinformation was real—certainly not unprecedented—and had the potential of creating vastly more harm than good.

OPH was faced with three options:

1.  Do nothing and respond to the report and the fallout that would ensue after the fact.
2.  Provide full disclosure of the situation, including identifying the name and address of the clinic and physician and the types of procedures which had placed patients at risk.
3.  Provide partial disclosure that would strike a balance between patient needs, the public interest and the capacity of the system to absorb increased demand for information, testing or treatment.

Communicating risk

The risks that kill people and the risks that upset people are completely different.Sandman, 2007

The health department scrambled to organize a media conference for later that afternoon. At this time, Dr. Levy announced what had occurred, confirmed that there were no known cases of anyone becoming ill and reported the very low numerical probability of infection. He acknowledged that some people might feel anxious or nervous about the announcement, and offered an explanation about what actions his office had put into place and would be following in the coming days, including a promise for new information early in the week.

To this extent, he acted in a manner consistent with the basic tenets of risk communication. He did not over-reassure, acknowledged that people would feel anxious about the announcement and described the discovery and response processes.

However, when pressed by journalists for a fuller disclosure of information, Dr. Levy refused to identify the name or location of the medical facility, the physician who operated it, or details about the patient population affected (i.e., children, adults, seniors, etc.).

This was a risky move for two major reasons.

First, it guaranteed that the health department would clash with the media over competing values: whereas the health department values only pertinent information in the interest of protecting public health, journalists value full disclosure, immediacy and thrive on controversy and outrage. Second, the decision to provide only very general information risked intensifying ambiguity and uncertainty, where the objective of risk communication is to lessen it. People aspire for control over their lives, even if they cannot change what might happen.

Ottawa Public Health called a second media conference on Monday, October 17th, where Dr. Levy disclosed all of the known information about:

  • where the breach had occurred (a private health clinic operated by Dr. Christiane Farazli on Carling Avenue in the city’s west end)
  • what caused the lapse in infection control (improper sanitation of equipment associated with the performance of endoscopies)
  • what patients should do next (contact their physician or the public health department’s call response centre to discuss whether they should be tested)

Media response

The news media’s framing of risk has more to do with its reproduction of moral outrage than with “scientific” notions of calculable risk. —Brown, Chapman & Lupton, 1996

Ottawa Public Health and Dr. Levy in particular, came under fire for the decision to provide only partial disclosure in its first media conference.

In a post to his Greater Ottawa blog on October 17thOttawa Citizen reporter David Reevely initially described Dr. Levy’s shift from partial to full disclosure as a “volte-face” move, a “classic emergency communications error,” and mused about whether the public health unit might be “sitting on something more shocking.” (He later revised his position, explaining the full context of Dr. Levy’s shift in tactics, characterizing it as a “judgment call…that makes a whole lot of sense when viewed from inside.”)

In a story published on October 18th, the Ottawa Sun did not report the low levels of infection risk but did note the “potentially fatal” nature of Hepatitis and HIV and cited demands from evidently uninformed patients for full disclosure: “You can’t keep the public in the dark…We have the right to know— it’s not fair…. Especially HIV, when there’s no treatment.”

On CTV National News, public relations consultant Barry McLoughlin characterized Dr. Levy’s decision to not release all of the information at once as “a mistake” that intensified public anxiety.

And in an October 18th editorial, the Ottawa Citizen blamed Dr. Levy for causing “undue public concern by mismanaging the release of the information.”

Risk communication: normative and situational perspectives

These criticisms and the demand they represent regarding full disclosure are consistent with normative recommendations for risk communication.

The World Health Organization defines risk communication as “an interactive process of exchange of information and opinion” among authorities, citizens, news media and other stakeholders.

In the past authorities typically acted on the basis of what they believed was the best course of action. Oftentimes this meant shielding the organization itself from blame. Risk communication hinges on therecognition that citizens deserve to be treated honestly, respectfully and with a view to enhancing their autonomy. The objective is to reduce uncertainty so that people will be capable of making informed decisions that affect their lives. Organizations achieve this objective, in part, by communicating as openly as possible.

Notwithstanding the normative appeal of full disclosure, the ability to report all information needs to be considered against a variety of situational factors, including the seriousness of the threat (i.e., the scientifically measured level of hazard or harm), the organizational resources required to manage the response that full disclosure will produce, and the conflict between patient rights to privacy and the public and media’s right to know.

Focus assessment

The focus on whether the release of partial information was sufficient needs to be determined in light of the probability of harm and in relation to the ability of the health system to absorb the effects of full disclosure.Given the low hazard for harm and the state of system readiness, and the fact that this event was not caused by the public health department itself, it’s not unreasonable that OPH proceeded cautiously in its first communication with the media and public.

The problem, however, is that this limited the flow of information to journalists, whose occupational values—more information is always better—and “nose for outrage” positions them in opposition.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “scientists want data to be released when it’s ‘seasoned’—the media want fresh data now.” Consistent with previous cases of low hazard/high outrage events, the Ottawa health department and media differed not only in their treatment of information, but also their definitions of how to define what’s in the public interest. The health department’s partial disclosure not only strained its relationship with the media; it also kept the wider public under-informed and in a state of uncertainty.

Risk communication conclusion

The question of when to release risk information is a serious one, not to be taken lightly. It is vitally important to communicate openly and to communicate early. As the CDC advises, public health authorities need to “be first, be right, be credible.” And according to the World Health Organization, “the benefits of early warning outweigh the risks,” even when faced with uncertainty and the possibility of error.

Although prescriptive recommendations such as these are important in guiding decision-making about disclosure, such decisions cannot be made by virtue of normative standards alone.

Rather, as argued here, they must be made in relation to situational factors. They need to be made in a context that acknowledges:

  1. It guaranteed that the health department would clash with the media over competing values.
  2. The resources that will be required to manage the system impacts such announcements tend to produce.
  3. The legislative environment that balances patient privacy rights against the rights of the public to know

In this case, it’s possible that a full disclosure of all available information in its first media conference would have created undue pressure on local physicians, public health clinics and hospital emergency rooms. Keeping in mind that risk is about both uncertainty and possibility, the scenario of an overwhelmed healthcare system surely played out in the health department’s decision making.

It’s important to note that this risk event was not caused by the health department itself, but by a private clinic regulated by the province of Ontario. Ottawa Public Health responded to an investigation by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, and to an alert by the Ontario government. It proceeded with its own investigation and a strategy of public disclosure only when it became evident that the other agencies involved would not do so. The decision to provide only partial disclosure was made on the basis of the health department’s interpretation of the scientific evidence relating to infection risk. That this decision wasallegedly forced by a news organization threatening to break the story with erroneous information, is significant in terms of assessing the response.

Ottawa Public Health acted appropriately in balancing the needs of patients in relation with system capacity, but only to the extent that this event involved infinitesimally low levels of health risk. Had the probability of infection been higher, or had there been evidence of patients who had actually been infected, its response (and this assessment) would likely have been different.

Response problematic in one area: social media

The OPH response is problematic in one other way.

In the most recent edition of his book Ongoing Crisis CommunicationW. Timothy Coombs describes the “increasingly important” role of social media for issues management and as a channel for responding to public questions and sharing information. It’s unclear to what extent social media sites are used by Ottawa Public Health to scan or monitor media and public discourse; but for the dissemination of public information sites have been used only sparingly.

For example, (at the time of writing this post) the health department’s under-used Tumblr account does not contain a single update about the infection scare, although it’s been used for other health information purposes during this time. And while its Facebook page and Twitter account have posted synced updates to a low number of fans (363) and followers (5,000+), the fact that both were dormant in the 36-48 hours following the initial media conference suggests social media outreach represents a low priority within the health department’s communication plan.

Given that the period immediately following a public announcement is a critical time when reporters and members of the public are discussing an event and forming their initial impressions, social media platforms present an important space not only for assessing the tone of the public conversation, but for also correcting misinformation if and when it occurs.

Risk events such as the Ottawa endoscopies infection scare can be disorienting because of the intense feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and fear they produce. But to the extent that these situations are potentially destabilizing, they also afford unique opportunities to think critically about how we discuss and practice risk communication.

** This post originally appeared as a guest column on PR Conversations. I thank Judy Gombita and Heather Yaxley for the invitation and their community of readers for the excellent comments and feedback.

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Canada’s Public Relations State

In November 2010, The Hill Times reported a significant, if largely ignored, transformation in the apparatus of government. Citing data from Public Accounts, it showed how over a period of three years, spending on communications in the Prime Minister’s Office had steadily risen by 30 per cent to nearly $10 million per year. The biggest chunk of this spending was on personnel, with 22 per cent of the budget going to pay the salaries of the 26 people employed as PR strategists, officers and assistants in the government’s most powerful office.

Canadians will be forgiven for not taking notice. After all, this example of political journalism did not arrive by leak or following several months of investigative reporting. Rather, it came from the close reading of an accounting ledger — hardly the stuff of scandal or intrigue, despite its significance.

Setting aside the irony that this increase in spending came from a ruling bloc that considers itself the party of small government, there are very good public policy reasons for increasing the communications budget. An accelerated news cycle; the political activities of business interests, unions and NGOs; the amplification of partisan bickering within Parliament; the growth of social media; and the rise of specialty news outlets representing increasingly important ethno-cultural groups: together, these factors present an assemblage of opportunities and constraints for communicating the work of government to Canadians. Arguably, it’s never been more difficult for a government to communicate with its citizens.

Critics argue that this rise in PR spending is typical of a government obsessed with message control and they decry the decline of a democracy in which an increasingly influential cadre of spin-doctors appear to be manufacturing crises for no other reason than to justify their own solutions. Illustrative of this position is the Globe & Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson, who wrote that “although centralized control of messaging has been a growing feature of governments in many democracies nothing in Canada has come close to the attention, time and effort the Harper government puts into managing and manipulating information and image-making.”

Notwithstanding the importance of such a critique, it misses the more important point that increased spending on PR may be fueling a transformation in the institutionalization of communication within the very heart of government. It’s a process that in a different political context the sociologists David Deacon and Peter Golding called the rise of the public relations state. For them, the increased spending on government PR offered insight into more than just the importance of packaging policy. It represented a new necessity in which government had to structure the playing field in such a way that privileged its position in the ongoing battle to manage and control public discourse, not only during election campaigns but in the periods between.

For Deacon and Golding, the institutionalization of government PR was not an evil in itself. Rather, it was problematic to the extent that it increased the likelihood of blurring “the conventional division between public information and party propaganda”. There are plenty of recent examples where this line has been approached, if not crossed altogether. The Conservatives over-zealous promotion of the Economic Action Plan at the same time as a major pre-election partisan offensive is but one example. The sponsorship scandal that effectively ended a period of Liberal hegemony is a more obvious one.

Given the current political climate, a federal election appears imminent. The Conservative government has been cited for contempt of Parliament; allegations of corruption continue to dominate headlines; negative attack ads are increasing with frequency; and the nations leading pollsters are competing every day to frame the political horse race and its likely outcome. The war for hearts and minds has reached a fevered pitch. Although public relations spending cannot guarantee the outcome of a campaign, it certainly influences the possibility of success.

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Back to the blog

After several months away it’s time to get back to blogging – it’s not that I’ve been lazy or disengaged, just distracted by other things. Here’s a summary of what I’ve been up to since (gulp) my last post in February.

In late May, I was the conference program co-chair of the Association for Nonprofit and Social Economy Research (ANSER), which met during the 2009 Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities. The build-up to the meeting was particularly intense with more than 200 conference participants from academia and the voluntary sector — we had Canadians, Americans and conference participants from as far away as Australia. The keynote address was delivered by Michael Edwards, formerly of the Ford Foundation and now with progressive think tank Demos in New York City. I also hosted an event to celebrate the publication of my latest book, Surveillance: Power, Problems and Politics (UBC Press, 2009), which I co-edited with my long-time friend and collaborator Sean Hier from the sociology department at University of Victoria.

I spent most of my summer enjoying holidays with family in beautiful British Columbia and at our cottage in Algonquin Park. Vancouver was especially nice in late July where the temperature stayed consistently in the low 30s and the sun was always shining (quite in contrast to the misery of Ottawa, where it rained the entire time we were away).

I did get some writing finished this summer, including the final touches on a special issue of the Canadian Journal of Communication on public relations, co-edited with Graham Knight from the communication studies and multimedia department at McMaster University. This project was a long time coming, starting way back in 2008. See the  TOC here and check out the editorial and research paper I contributed. I am very pleased with how this issue turned out – lots of excellent contributions by scholars and media professionals from Canada and abroad on such timely issues as risk communication, journalist/PR relations, political campaigning, PR education, professionalism and nation branding, among many others. Post your comments below or send me a note if you have a chance to read any of the articles or reviews.

Toward the end of August I did a little bit of consulting, working with some local public health and housing advocates to help them deal with a particularly thorny NIMBY problem. My involvement in this case piqued my interest in further exploring the literature on communication ethics, deliberative democracy and theories of “public consultation”. It was clear from this experience that communities, politicians and social service providers all operate with different understandings of what consultation really entails and how it can be achieved. All cities (large, medium, even small) face important challenges in dealing with poverty, homelessness, addictions, mental illness and other structural social problems. These are not, as C. Wright Mills describes them, problems of the individual milieu – they are structural issues that require both structural and community solutions. Yet too often the stakeholders in these debates speak around or, more to the point, shout over one another – it becomes a battle geared toward winning rather than achieving mutual understanding. Communication researchers can play an important role in identifying the means and ways in which power relations operate in and through the language community stakeholders use to frame understanding of these issues, and in facilitating a process by which they can, at minimum, agree on the terms of their engagement if not on the outcomes.

It’s already October and I can’t believe the fall term is a month old. I was appointed to be the supervisor of undergraduate studies in our program and for the final weeks of August and the first few weeks of September I was very busy dealing daily with student registration issues, attending recruiting events to entice the country’s best and brightest to come to Carleton, and in getting my own course (MCOM 5204: Media, Culture and Policy) up and running. It’s a graduate level seminar that introduces students to key issues in the study of communication and public health policy (our substantive focus): theories of public policy; media advocacy; impacts of ‘new’ media on the medical and health professions and on health promotion; audience segmentation; risk and crisis communication; framing; and program evaluation. So far it’s going very well – I have a group of 8 really engaged MA and PhD students and we are “collaborating” again this year with the city of Ottawa’s public health department on some of their current and emergent issues.

I have also been actively promoting From Homeless to Home, a film I co-produced about homelessness in Ottawa, first to a meeting of academics, then a coalition of housing and other service providers, and later to the Homelessness Partnering Secretariat, a division within the federal government. I understand the film will be screened by Cinema Politica in Montreal sometime in November. When I know the details, I’ll post them here.

In December I’ll be attending the UN Climate Change Conference to examine how environmental activists and NGOs are using traditional and ‘new’ media to campaign for a new international deal to confront the problem of global warming. This is part of a larger project which you can read about on the blog’s Projects Page. I’ve never been to the Scandinavian countries so intend to take a little time for tourism and site-seeing while I’m there. Anyone with “must do” recommendations for my time there, please leave me a reply below! I’m also getting ready to head off to Atlanta at the end of October where I’ll be participating in a crisis and emergency-risk communication training session at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I was just awarded a small amount of funding to look at how public health agencies in Canada and the U.S. engage the nonprofit sector in emergency planning and response, particularly their means and methods of ‘consultation’. The trip to CDC will be informing some of that research (again, see the Projects Page for more details).

On a personal note, I love this time of year. The colours have turned very quickly and the green of summer has given way to beautiful hues of gold and red. We were recently at the cottage where my family convenes every Thanksgiving and had a stunning drive through Algonquin Park. The smell and sound of falling foliage always puts me at peace. I’m gearing up for a last outing of cycling this coming weekend in Prince Edward County with some good friends. It’s our last grasp of a season we know has already passed us by. I realize that winter is not far off. The episodic flecks of snow encountered this past weekend appear to have followed me home, even if they made only a brief appearance this afternoon. Writing now in my home office, with the dogs at my feet and a steaming cup of coffee, I don’t seem to mind.

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